My Label and Me: I became an orphan when I was seven years old

My Label and Me: I became an orphan when I was seven years old

When I first heard that word in relation to myself, it had been less than hour since my parents had died.

I was a cold February day in 1978. I was seven years old and with my five year old brother sat next to me on the sofa, a family friend said, ‘It’s heart-breaking, the poor little orphans.’

For a second, I wondered who she was talking about and then it hit me. We were orphans.

The label orphan would shape me for the remainder of my childhood and well into my adolescent years. A sympathetic look or a tilt of the head was enough for me to know that people were sad for me and my brother.

It was usually my grandmother who offered up the information to strangers that our parents were dead and used the term ‘orphan’.

As a young boy, people would inevitably ask what my parents did for a living and I always gave a truthful response.\

Their reaction was usually one of pity if they were adults, or embarrassment if they were children but either reaction made me somewhat uncomfortable.

The word orphan is an old-fashioned one that conjurs up images of Oliver Twist, or in our modern world, little children in war-torn countries.

It certainly wasn’t much different in 1978 and 41 years on, the subject of childhood bereavement is only now being discussed in the mainstream media.

The label orphan is a tricky one because it falls between other categories of loss. Whilst burying one’s parents is essentially following the natural order, to have to do this as a young child feels unnatural and goes against life’s plan.

As I have grown older, the term orphan has become increasingly irrelevant to me.

Not just because I chose to reject it as a description of myself but as I have progressed through my 30s and now my 40s, many of my friends and contemporaries have themselves now lost at least one parent, if not both.

I’m acutely aware that had my parents not died from heart disease 10 weeks apart 40 years ago, then they could have been well into their 80s and 90s now and I would still be faced with the prospect of losing them in the years to come.

It would have postponed the inevitable but at least they would have seen my brothers and I grow up into men, see me graduate, get married and all those other events that act as life’s landmarks.

When a close friend recently lost her mother only two years after her father’s death, she said to me, ‘I’m an orphan too now.’ I know why she said it to me, because finally she knew what it felt like to lose both your parents. It was an act of solidarity.

Yet, I’ve never labelled myself as an orphan, simply because it is something that was forced on me as the result of a tragic set of circumstances.

I wasn’t born an orphan. I was however, born gay and that is a term that I am happy to use to define myself.

However, when I decided to write a book about my childhood, I knew instinctively from the beginning that it would be called Orphan Boys.

Essentially it was ironic and perhaps part of me was taking the label other people had forced on me and claiming ownership of the word, taking a negative and using it as a positive.

Going forward in life, do I see myself as an orphan? No. I have a husband, I have family and I have my friends. I receive an abundance of love on a daily basis and I know that I’m very lucky indeed.

As for my parents? I continue to feel their love around me every day as I have for the past 40 years. I may not see them but I know that they are with me, every step of the way.

Phil is the author of Orphan Boys. 

Labels

Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity  positively or negatively  and what the label means to them.

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